From Farm To Distillery, Heirloom Corn Varieties Are Sweet Treasures

Jennifer Gleason (left) and Alice Melendez, who's growing Hickory King heirloom corn on her farm to help Gleason make corn chips.

Jennifer Gleason (left) and Alice Melendez, who’s growing Hickory King heirloom corn on her farm to help Gleason make corn chips. Noah Adams/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Noah Adams/NPR

“Knee-high by the Fourth of July” is an old favorite saying, when you’d drive past a field of corn out in the country. And many of the old favorite varieties, called heirloom corn, have lots of new friends.

In recent years, seed companies have been reporting big sales numbers for these varieties. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri says sales are “skyrocketing” — a fitting verb for the fireworks holiday.

And in Kentucky, two projects are growing up around heirloom corn. One is a new adventure in bourbon distilling, and the other takes place on a hilltop farm in the northern part of the state.

I went to see Jennifer Gleason’s small farm, and on the way I was thinking of some of the colorful heirloom names, such as Painted Mountain Corn, Bloody Butcher and Country Gentleman.

Gleason’s favorite? Hickory King Corn.

A longtime farmer, she’s trying to raise enough food for her family, mostly fruits and vegetables. Fifteen years ago she decided to start growing a grain, and went looking for corn. She was introduced to Hickory King.

Jennifer Gleason's field of Hickory King Corn, with buckwheat growing between the rows, in Mount Olivet, Ky.

Jennifer Gleason’s field of Hickory King Corn, with buckwheat growing between the rows, in Mount Olivet, Ky. Courtesy of Jennifer Gleason hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Jennifer Gleason

“I went to the local hardware store in downtown Maysville … a really old-fashioned one where you had the seeds in bins that you shoveled out and weighed. And it was the only corn that wasn’t pink. All the other corn was coated with a fungicide,” she says.

Gleason now has a corn house where she works with a grain mill, grinding the Hickory King she brings in from the fields. For the home table she makes grits, hominy and corn bread.

“With time I learned it was an open-pollinated heirloom variety best known for making great moonshine, making great hominy. Animals love it as fodder,” she says.

Gleason’s farm is now a tiny factory, called Sunflower Sundries. She makes and sells lot of soap, jars of jam, pickled asparagus, and the Hickory King line which now includes corn chips. They come in 12-ounce bags, which sell well in nearby counties and by mail order. Two local farmers help her grow enough of the corn.

I was pleased to hear Jennifer mention moonshine. Of course, that’s how bourbon got started in the first place, with the Scots-Irish settlers in Appalachia growing corn, adding value by cooking it, distilling it, and transporting the liquor in barrels. And I’d heard that Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, alongside the Kentucky River, has an experimental project underway that uses heirloom corn.

Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley stands below a portrait of E.H. Taylor, one of the founders of what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky.

Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley stands below a portrait of E.H. Taylor, one of the founders of what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky. Noah Adams/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Noah Adams/NPR

I went to meet Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley and we talked amid the noise and the steam and the sweet aroma of fermenting corn. Buffalo Trace plans to make bourbon from heirloom corn, using a different variety each year. On the morning I visited he was watching over the project’s first selection, harvested last fall, called Boone County White.

“All the grain from the farm, we dried it in a silo and then we brought it in and ground it. It’s been fermented about five days. We’re going to still it today,” Wheatley says.

The company has set aside 18 acres on a farm it’s bought next door, making it easy to keep watch during the season.

“The stuff was 15 feet tall,” Wheatley says. “Some of the ears were 24 inches long. We were pretty excited when we saw the ears, but the problem was there was only one or two per stalk.”

Two ears on each stalk? That’s about right for most corn — it was the 24-inch ear that impressed Wheatley.

As it turned out they had a good enough crop for 117 barrels of bourbon. Now it will take six years to age, the barrels stored away in a warehouse. No one can predict what it might end up tasting like, although the company has grand expectations.

Boone County White corn is seen fermenting just before distillation at Buffalo Trace.

Boone County White corn is seen fermenting just before distillation at Buffalo Trace. Noah Adams/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Noah Adams/NPR

When the proper time comes there will be a taste test. Respectable whiskey writers will get together and sip and decide what’s really in the heirloom corn barrel. The highest rated of all time? That’s Pappy Van Winkle, namesake of the bourbon now produced by Buffalo Trace, scoring 95 out of 100 points.

Amy Preske, the company’s public relations director, says they’re hoping this experiment produces a perfect 100 score.

Preske’s department loves to send out stories about elegantly dressed gentlemen who once made fine whiskey. In this case — the choice of the heirloom variety factors in. Boone County White was said to be a favorite corn of E.H Taylor, who’s often referred to as a “founding father” of the bourbon industry. Buffalo Trace can date its beginnings back to Taylor’s distillery in the late 1800s. That’s job satisfaction for Perske. “We like things that have good history behind them, because that’s basically what marketing is about — it’s telling good stories.”

Taylor’s new bourbon will be ready in 2022, followed in one year by heirloom crop No. 2 — Japonica Striped Corn, which did come from Japan, and has striped leaves, purple tassels, and burgundy kernels.

That corn — here on the Fourth of July — is reported to be 12 inches high.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Saudi Arabia Is Hit By Suicide Bombers: 3 Cities In 24 Hours

Saudi policemen stand guard at the site where a suicide bomber blew himself Monday, near the U.S. consulate in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

Saudi policemen stand guard at the site where a suicide bomber blew himself Monday, near the U.S. consulate in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption AFP/Getty Images

From west to east, the targets ranged from a U.S. consulate in Jeddah to the holy city of Medina and a mosque in the city of Qatif. So far, at least, the casualties are relatively light when compared to recent similar attacks. In at least one case, the attacker died before reaching their target.

Information about the attacks is still emerging, and some early reports may prove off-base. We’ll move quickly to correct the record and we’ll only point to the best information we have at the time. Refresh this page for the latest.

The violence came as many Saudis prepare to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

The attack on Medina has particular significance in a country whose ruler is known by the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. One of those mosques is in Mecca; the other, the Prophet’s Mosque, is in Medina, in an area near where a suicide bomber reportedly detonated an explosive Monday.

At least five people — the bomber, and four members of the security force — died in the Medina attack, according to Saudi-owned TV channel Al Arabiya.

The agency reports:

“Al Arabiya News Channel’s correspondent said the suicide bombing took place in a parking lot between the city court and the mosque, visited by millions every year. The channel showed images of fire raging in a parking lot with at least one body seen nearby. The suicide bomber also died in the attack.”

The earliest incident appears to have taken place in Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, shortly after 2 a.m. local time Monday, when security officers became suspicious of a man in the parking lot of the Dr. Suleiman Faqih Hospital — which is across the street from the large U.S. consulate compound.

After the security personnel moved to intercept the man, the official Saudi Press Agency says, “he initiated to exploded himself with an explosive belt he was wearing inside the hospital’s parking, which resulted in his death and slightly wounding two security men who were taken to the hospital.”

In Qatif, which is on the Gulf coast, a suicide bomber reportedly targeted a Shiite mosque. Less is known about that bombing — other than the attacker, we’re not seeing any reports of injuries from that explosion.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Female Tea Workers In One Indian State Fight For Their Rights

Tea leaf pickers in the Indian tea industry are nearly all women, and in the southern tea-growing state of Kerala, they earn the lowest daily minimum wage of any sector in the state. They work six days a week rain or shine. But J. Rajeshwari (right) helped mobilize the female worforce. “We couldn’t feed ourselves or educate our children, so we organized,” she says. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR

A steady rain falls on velvet green terraces, releasing a powerful scent of newly harvested tea. A ripple of voices tumbles down the hillside as a man barks orders.

The tea pickers, all women, many in bare feet, expertly navigate the leech-infested slopes. Balancing hampers on their backs loaded with freshly plucked tea leaves, they descend for their morning tea break.

It could be a scene out of the 19th century, when the estates of the southern Indian state of Kerala were first cultivated on the mist-shrouded highlands of Munnar. Today, the manicured tea terraces sprawl across the landscape.

Fresh tea leaves, plucked from waist-high bushes, are fragile and easily damaged.

Fresh tea leaves, plucked from waist-high bushes, are fragile and easily damaged. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR

The verdant bushes grow year round, spilling down the hills to meet the curving roads. The beauty of these gardens belies the hardships of workers, who produce nearly 50 million pounds of tea a year here at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company.

For all the timelessness of the place, there’s a very modern twist — the tea pickers have defied the male hierarchy of trade unions who represent tea workers and stood up for their rights.

Indeed, life on tea estates reflects the economic and social challenges facing women across India.

On a large estate like this one, hundreds of workers harvest tea, some by hand, some with shears, even in the monsoon.

Wearing a pyramid-shaped hat fashioned out of clear plastic, Sitha Lakshmi, 41, snips the delicate leaves in the pouring rain. She says the hat is all the rain gear her company provides — and that, exposed to the wet, cool clime of 6,000 feet altitude, she is often sick.

When asked how she works in all the rain, another picker replied: “It’s the job. I do it or I don’t get paid.”

Workers on the tea estates of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company in the Indian state of Kerala live in rent-free housing. Though the accommodations are rudimentary, they're considered a major benefit for employees.

Workers on the tea estates of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company in the Indian state of Kerala live in rent-free housing. Though the accommodations are rudimentary, they’re considered a major benefit for employees. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR

Security on these terraces has been tight since the women began pressing demands for improved conditions and increased pay.

The women are freer to talk at home than on the hills, and we meet in the evening.

The workers live in company-owned settlements on the grounds of the estates.

The cramped quarters of J. Rajeshwari are filled with wardrobes, cupboards lined with utensils — and guests. Eight women and their husbands — all sitting on a large bed — eagerly greet us. The men agree to leave and the women lead the conversation.

Rajeshwari, 45, has worked the tea estate since she was 19. She describes life on their limited income.

“We were earning little more than $3 a day. We couldn’t feed ourselves or educate our children. I couldn’t even buy a sari. I didn’t have the means to raise my children. So we organized,” she says.

Lissy Sunny is president of the Women's Collective formed last fall to represent the nearly all-female work force of tea pickers at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company.

Lissy Sunny is president of the Women’s Collective formed last fall to represent the nearly all-female work force of tea pickers at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR

Nine months ago, the women formed the Women’s Collective. The president of the group, 48-year-old Lissy Sunny, rises in the shadowy dawn to work the tea estate until dusk. She lives with her husband in a rudimentary three-room accommodation provided rent-free by Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company — considered one of the most progressive employers in the industry.

But after 20 years of toiling, Sunny sounds more angry than grateful as she recalls the event that triggered the women’s agitation for greater compensation.

“We worked hard from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — we wanted the company to succeed,” she says. “But when they cut our bonus in half last September, we said we won’t work like this — we cannot live like animals. We’re not slaves. We need a dignified life.”

Sunny says the greatest indignity was being forced to choose which of her two children to educate. There wasn’t money for both. Years ago, she chose her daughter, the better student, leaving her son, Denil, to live at home and work for the tea plantation.

“He’s depressed,” she says, and “blames us for not giving him a proper education.” He’s 29 now, and she points out that his company job is a safety net for her and her husband. As long as her son works, they have a place to live as they grow old.

The need for housing, Sunny says, has tethered generation after generation to the plantations.

Trade union leader V.O. Shaji has a provocative name for this dependence — calling it “civilized slavery.”

Shaji says tea plantations pay field workers the lowest minimum daily wage of any sector in the state. They were given shares in the company 10 years ago to give them a sense of ownership, but the shares offer little financial reward.

That’s why their bonus matters so much. And why the women took extraordinary steps to restore it.

Employees at the factory of the Harrisons Malayalam Ltd. Lockhart Estate in the highlands of Munnar sort dried tea leaves by size and color. Tea workers here and throughout the state benefited from the labor action initiated by the Women's Collective at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation.

Employees at the factory of the Harrisons Malayalam Ltd. Lockhart Estate in the highlands of Munnar sort dried tea leaves by size and color. Tea workers here and throughout the state benefited from the labor action initiated by the Women’s Collective at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR

First, they organized a strike, independent of the trade unions. For decades, they belonged to the unions but they now accuse them of being corrupt and ineffectual. Then the women went directly to senior state officials to demand a $4 a day increase in their wages. They won an increase of just $1 a day but even that amount was unprecedented, and it was applied industry-wide to tea pickers across the state.

Rajeshwari says the women didn’t trust the male-dominated unions to represent their interests.

“There’s an ego problem,” she says. “A man cannot stand and respectfully listen to a woman. They don’t want to listen. So, we boldly walked away. But now they are scared, and they will have listen to us. Women have won, despite these men.”

The minimum daily wage is now 301 rupees — about $4.40. If they pick more, they earn more, and many do. For each extra kilo, they earn just pennies. But it is an improvement for this newly mobilized female workforce.

Rajeshwari says decades of being dismissed by complacent, patriarchal unions compelled the women to challenge the status quo.

“We gathered our courage and succeeded,” she says. “It’s men who ruled for the last four generations. It’s men who ran the unions. For so long, it’s only men. That’s why we women came together.”

Click here to subscribe to our weekly global health and development email. NPR hide caption

toggle caption NPR

Feminist scholar J. Devika calls their struggle “a thunderous slap” on “Kerala’s highly patriarchal history of trade unionism.”

“We are witnessing a huge, very slow, but definitely persistent effort on the side of women to change the terms of their lives,” she says.

Devika says that the women dared to organize outside the unions is especially striking considering how strong the established unions are in Kerala and how difficult it is to operate outside of them.

V.O. Shaji says the unions hadn’t been idle but admits they “missed the women’s grievances because of the lack of representation of women in the union.”

“We’re now trying to correct that, putting more women in senior positions, and listening to them directly,” Shaji says.

Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company did not respond to repeated telephone and electronic requests for comment.

The nine women we spoke with are determined to stick with their cause, and cheerfully report their progress: They now pick up their paychecks, instead of their husbands. In fact, they whisper that their husbands are even a “little afraid of them.”

“One hundred percent,” says Rajeshwari, laughing.

The women’s slogan suggests a steely resolve: “The hands that wear bangles can also carry swords.”

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Moving Day For Troublesome New Hampshire Bears

More than 5,000 black bears live in New Hampshire, and can be found in almost every part of the state. But Andrew Timmins, who grew up there, didn’t see his first bear until he was nearly 20. Now, as the state’s Bear Project leader, he sees lots of them.

Sean Hurley of Here & Now contributor New Hampshire Public Radio spent a day with Timmins at a bear hotspot near a popular ski resort and learned how Timmins catches and relocates troublesome bears.

Reporter

Sean Hurley, reporter, New Hampshire Public Radio. He tweets @Sherwinsleeves.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Kevin Durant Picks Golden State Warriors, Ending Free Agency Saga

Kevin Durant (left) will leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors and guard Stephen Curry (far right). The Warriors ended the Thunder's season in May.

Kevin Durant (left) will leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors and guard Stephen Curry (far right). The Warriors ended the Thunder’s season in May. Sue Ogrocki/AP hide caption

toggle caption Sue Ogrocki/AP

The question of where one of the NBA’s biggest stars will play next season is now over: Kevin Durant is leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join a fellow superstar in Stephen Curry, whose Golden State Warriors narrowly missed out on repeating as NBA champions last month.

In May, Durant and the Thunder had pushed Curry and the Warriors to a Game 7 of their Western Conference playoff before the Oklahoma squad was eliminated from contention.

Durant was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player after the 2013-14 season; in Curry, he’ll be joining the player who won the award for the past two seasons.

“Durant will play beside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on a loaded Warriors team that set the NBA’s regular season record for victories, but fell one win short of the championship,” Jacob McCleland reports from member station KGOU. McCleland adds, “ESPN reports the two-year deal is worth over $54 million.”

Durant, who had been courted by nearly as many teams as the number whose fans yearned for him to revitalize their local NBA franchise, made his announcement in a post for The Players’ Tribune. In it, Durant, 27, said his free agency had brought on an emotional and careful process.

From his post:

“The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player — as that has always steered me in the right direction. But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth. With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.

“I’m from Washington, D.C. originally, but Oklahoma City truly raised me. It taught me so much about family as well as what it means to be a man. There are no words to express what the organization and the community mean to me, and what they will represent in my life and in my heart forever. The memories and friendships are something that go far beyond the game. Those invaluable relationships are what made this deliberation so challenging.”

Durant’s choice quickly gained the endorsement of Lil B, a rapper whose sobriquet is The BasedGod.

More than five years after leveling a curse on Durant that stated the talented forward would never win an NBA title, Lil B — who is a Warriors fan — rescinded that punishment today.

“The BasedGod” wants to speak,As life unravels and superstars make decisions that change lifes, welcome home KD the curse is lifted – Lil B

— Lil B THE BASEDGOD (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD) July 4, 2016

That famous curse had been prompted by Durant’s surmising that Lil B was “a wack rapper.” But now, all is forgiven.

“As life unravels and superstars make decisions that change lifes, welcome home KD the curse is lifted,” Lil B tweeted shortly after Durant announced his decision today.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)